Kohli & Co Have Some Gains, but Still Need To Answer Questions
A long season of cricket and many trophies but what are the ‘wins’ for India?
As India’s long drawn-out international season finally draws to a close, we must avoid falling into a trap.
At the end of the season, we have seen some unrealistic comparisons with champion West Indies sides of the past as also with the dominant and rampaging Australian side of late 1990s and 2000s.
India may have exceeded all expectations in the season, but truth be told, the Virat Kohli-led side is not close to being as dominant as those champion teams. We are letting ourselves be carried away by results at home, mostly, and of course that historic Test series win in Australia.
There are still gaps to be filled in the side, across all three formats, which does not lend ourselves to being called the world’s best. The outside world may call you the best, but the talent pool is still to be tested and the existing players have not always covered themselves in glory.
For starters, let us look at the Test match batting line-up. The top-order is still a matter of concern and the opening slot continues to be a revolving door. We all know the confusion surrounding Rohit Sharma’s selection for the Australia tour – till he arrived, Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw opened and then Shaw lost his place to Shubman Gill after the 36 debacle in Adelaide. Thereafter, it was the turn of Agarwal to lose his place and then move down the order.
Gill and Sharma then became India’s openers for the next six tests, but they hardly ever looked certain as a pair.
The middle-order shows sparks of brilliance and solidity. Senior pros Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane showed some signs of lending some respectability to the totals, but that was also very inconsistent.
Virat Kohli did not pass hundred throughout the season in Tests, but Rishabh Pant’s aggression and consistent performance, after the initial trouble in Australia, saved the day. The SCG rescue act by Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin was also a highlight for the season. However, there were too many collapses, which were hidden because of Ashwin’s Test hundred at Chennai and Kohli’s flashes of genius.
The side needs to get a fix for this batting collapses with a full tour of England and the World Test Championship final on the anvil. Englishmen will be itching to return the compliment with interest and New Zealand’s pace bowlers have been India’s bugbear across formats for a while.
Keeper of Faith
Meanwhile, the wicket-keeper’s slot appears to have been settled in favour of Rishabh Pant for now, even though Wriddhiman Saha travelled all through the Test season with the squad. Just what is Saha’s role going ahead is unknown because Kona Bharat, the heir apparent, is also travelling now with the squad.
Spinning a Web
The spinners obviously redeemed themselves after the Chennai disaster thanks to the resurgence of Ashwin, and Axar Patel’s smashing debut but the lack of depth is a worrying sign as Kuldeep Yadav, Shahbaz Nadeem flattered to deceive.
Ravindra Jadeja obviously will return once he is fully fit, so we will be back with the old firm. Ashwin and Jadeja’s batting displays through the season should make it clear that India will continue to play them as all-rounders in the Test XI, giving scope for five regular bowlers. Oh and before you forget, Washington Sundar can also lay his claim at being an additional member just because of his unlikely returns in Tests across the season.
Fast and Furious
The pace bowling in the team is the biggest sunshine sector of the season. The big gains from the Australia tour was that thanks (not to the injured ones) to slots opening up, a few new names cropped up.
Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, and T Natarajan stole the show in Australia with their differing approaches. Siraj’s persistence, Thakur’s all-round show and Natarajan’s heart-warming rise from being a net bowler are stories to be retold numerous times. The fact that the first-choice pace bowlers did not even have to play a part through the season tells you about India’s pace bowling depth.
If the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, and Ishant Sharma stay fit, India can finally look to break the England tour jinx that has bogged Indian cricket since 2007.
But the fact that India still continues to struggle in dismissing the lower-order batsmen overseas is a matter of concern. There has to be a solution to this menace some time soon or sides batting deep like England and New Zealand will continue to trouble India in Tests.
Limited Overs Gains
The white-ball segment of the season was also mixed. The T20I template saw a shift with the Indian think-tank finally deciding to embrace the modern formula (read England formula). They packed the side with top performers of the champion IPL side in the T20I XI including Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan. Both started off in breathtaking fashion. Their emergence meant that towards the end of the eight-match T20I season, India finally came up with an opening pair – Sharma and Kohli – that could worry the world during the T20 World Cup later this year.
India finally seems to have separated the T20I line-up from their ODI line-up as was evident in the way they picked Shikhar Dhawan finally just for the 50-over format. The approach to the two white-ball formats varied from each other, though the personnel who emerged trumps were mostly the same-Thakur and returning Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
The approach in ODIs continues to be outdated though there were some signs during the season of there being a shift in the strategy. The openers for ODIs-Dhawan and Sharma-continue to play safe, which is not what most other pairs do. In the middle overs the other sides go berserk, while India continues to be careful. India needs to quickly redraw this plan for pitches that represent a road in 50 over cricket across the globe.
India’s spinners in white ball cricket need to step up big time. Varun Chakravarthy with his mystery spin was meant to be India’s answer to their ills in T20I cricket, at least in the short-term. But Chakravarthy did not measure up to the fitness standards. Of the others, Sundar and Rahul Chahar showed some signs of stepping into the tough roles in T20 cricket. Yuzvendra Chahal has fallen by the wayside, whereas Kuldeep Yadav has also lost confidence in T20 cricket.
In the 50-over formats India’s problem goes back to finding spinners who are wicket-taking options. The famed Kul-Cha pairing of the past is now history for the time being. Krunal Pandya who should have ideally been in the T20I squad, was tried out towards the end of the season in 50-over cricket. Pandya’s darts were easy pickings for England. That in itself should be a warning for the think-tank.
In both the white-ball formats, India’s problem is that they struggle to fit in five bowlers and none of the top-order batsmen bowl, making it difficult for Kohli to make things happen on the field.
This is where the form and fitness of Hardik Pandya becomes crucial. If Pandya bowls consistently, he solves multitude of problems and of course Jadeja’s return will simplify things further.
But a bigger problem could be solved if India finally gives up on being stubborn and getting Ashwin back in the coloured clothing.
The senior spinner is still better than most of the pretenders to the place. Ashwin can bat as well. As for his fielding, less said about the efforts on the field of the others throughout the season.
Some Questions Stay Unanswered
India’s biggest plus of the season was obviously the emergence of Rahane as a capable Test captain who led admirably in the absence of Kohli. As a result, the India captain was under some pressure to replicate Rahane’s calm approach, but he finally decided to shed inhibitions and continued being as loud as ever.
At the end of a season featuring eight Tests, eight T20Is and six ODIs, India’s head coach Ravi Shastri got another shot at making bombastic statements. He continued to regain his exalted status as one of India’s longest-ever serving Head Coach. But the coming 12 months will define Shastri’s tenure as his contract runs out by the end of the year.
There are questions galore that needs answers and hopefully we will get them soon.
Just sample a few: Hardik’s bowling fitness, India’s top-order blues across formats, spinners in white-ball cricket, Ashwin’s white-ball return, role-setting for Dhawan and Saha... apart from of course better communication from BCCI on matters related to the players’ fitness and selection of squads!
Is anyone listening?
(Chandresh Narayanan is a former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and the former media manager of Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, a Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.)
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